The trauma of being in a road accident is likely to leave motorists more vulnerable to "vultures" - tow-truck operators who prey on confused crash victims instead of helping them.

Representatives of three organisations serving the motoring public offered similar advice this week on how to avoid paying crippling costs for towing and storing vehicles removed from an accident scene by dishonest operators.

They also warned that modern technology required specialised towing equipment.

"It is important not to use just any tow-truck operator who appears on the scene," said André van der Merwe, chairman of the South African Towing and Recovery Association (Satra).

"Satra members are bound by our code of conduct, which is contractually enforceable and protects the consumer from being charged above market-related rates."

The Automobile Association recognised Satra as the national association representative of the towing and recovery industry and the panel-beating industry used its members partly because they operated the correct vehicles and equipment.

Satra members were not vultures "lying in wait" for an accident to happen, Van der Merwe said. They parked near high accident frequency zones "to ensure a prompt response to an accident and minimal disruption to traffic flow".

Satra provided recourse to motorists who had complaints against its members.

"We have a comprehensive complaints desk and a call centre that runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week to offer free assistance and advice," Van der Merwe explained.

"It is important to realise that Satra's members have your best interests at heart and are able to direct your vehicle to an appropriate panel-beater, help you with obtaining your accident case number and even help you to register your insurance claim."

Mark Kaufman of the STI group of auto body repairers, also a member of Satra, urged motorists not to let the shock of an accident push them into allowing a vehicle to be removed by ill-equippped operators.

"Our affiliate, STI Road Assist, uses salvage vehicles that lift the damaged vehicle off the road to remove it from the scene of the accident.

"STI Road Assist does not sit on the side of the road waiting for accidents. When drivers call STI we immediately despatch STI Road Assist to the accident scene.

"Members of STI are approved, registered panel-beaters. We provide peace of mind through proper repairs and our work is approved by all insurance companies."

Take these tips...

STI was started by a group of panel-beaters concerned about the image of the industry. Their aims included ensuring that vehicles were repaired according to the demands of technological advances.

Petro Kruger, divisional manager of public affairs at the Automobile Association (AA), has these tips for people involved in an accident or whose vehicle had broken down:

  • When dealing with recovery companies, always establish the towing and recovery rate as well as storage fees before agreeing to be towed.

  • Never sign a blank towing form.

  • If you are an AA member, contact the AA to arrange the tow. The AA uses only certain towing companies that comply with a code of conduct and service levels. You also have recourse if something goes wrong.

  • Get as much information about the tow operator as possible before you agree to the recovery - name of company, driver, registration of tow truck, physical address and phone number (preferably not a cellphone).

  • Be very clear on where you want your vehicle to be towed. Several towing companies have agreements with specific repair shops and may disregard the instructions of the vehicle owner regarding the destination. - Cape Argus

  • Whether in an accident or needing help with a breakdown, contact Satra on 0861 072 872. Reach STI on 0860 784 784 or Mark Kaufman direct on 083 281 0598.